Updated: Jun 7
Whether you realized it or not, The Oscars have been one of the few constants during the Covid Era. In 2020, the annual awards show in February was one of the last big spectacles we got to see unchanged by the social distancing that the pandemic forced us all into. In 2021, the Oscars remained live and in-person, though with a substantially smaller live audience (a substantially smaller television viewership, too… ). This year, look for the Oscars to signal a return to whatever the new normal is. Following Covid, very few institutions will be able to say that they’ve been held every year – the Oscars are one of them. For an event that’s been happening for nearly a century, that’s pretty cool.
Now, that doesn’t mean this is going to be a “typical Oscars.” We’ll get into more detail below, but the categories, the format and the timing of the Oscars are all different than we’ve seen in previous years – so much so that we actually had to rethink our own format for our annual article of predictions and snubs. Don’t worry, we’ll still have a list of how we think it will go down like usual, but we’ll get into why this year’s Academy Awards are bizarre a little later on.
OK, enough preamble. Let’s get into how we think Hollywood’s Biggest Night will shake out on Sunday. First, we’ll give you a broad overview of things to keep in mind while watching. And, as always, read clear to the end for a list of who we think got snubbed by The Academy this time around. And, also as always, our resident film nerd Troy Shinn will take things from here.
The Power of the Dog (12 total nominations)
West Side Story (7)
(Pandemic) Streaming Reigns Supreme
OK, first we need to clear something up: Netflix is a distribution company, not a production company. Sure, Netflix finances projects, which is all one really has to do to be deemed a “producer” in Hollywood. They even pay writers and directors to come up with projects and do all the things of a traditional studio. However, the vast majority of things you see on Netflix, even many that are marked with their logo and called “Netflix Originals,” are simply films and television shows who sold Netflix the exclusive rights to stream their work. They were fully completed projects that Netflix had nothing to do with creating. When people say “Netflix produced” or “made by Netflix,” just make sure you’re VERY clear about what they mean when they say this versus what the reality is.
Now, with that little tidbit out of the way, I can point out how streaming service films have quickly campaigned their way into the Oscars conversation. Netflix broke the mold with Roma in 2018, becoming the first film distributed by a streaming service to be nominated for Best Picture (though a theatrical run is still a requirement to be nominated, so streamable projects also play in local cinemas). Pretty much every year since, a steady stream of streamable films have made it into the big awards categories. This year turbocharged this trend. With so many theaters outright closed or struggling, people’s only option was to stay home and get their entertainment from the internet or from cable. That led to Netflix earning by far its most collective nominations at a single Academy Awards (35!) and the Best Picture category containing two films that were released on the platform. Another streaming service, AppleTV, joined the conversation with a Best Picture nom of its own for CODA. Now, I’m not implying these films didn’t deserve their spots, I’m saying so many projects were funneled toward streaming services in the past two years that THIS is the Covid Oscars. Films released in 2020 could still have been produced pre-pandemic, but 2021 movies were almost universally produced under completely unique circumstances and without theaters to release their work in. We’ll probably be talking about the 94th Academy Awards for a long time to come because of how much it shaped and highlighted the industry’s reliance on streaming content.
Avid Oscars viewers or astute pop culture nerds may recall that, back in 2008, there was an outcry over the fact that so few films get nominated for Best Picture. For 81 years, only five films were nominated for the top prize. In 2008, films like Wall-E and The Dark Knight were expected to get one of those five spots and didn’t. The Academy listened. Ever since, the category can have anywhere from five to 10 nominees. All 10 slots were filled for the next two years after adopting this rule. But ever since, it’s usually been eight or nine films. This is the first year in over a decade that has seen the full 10 nominee field.
No, for once we’re actually not talking about the cultural and ethnic makeup of the nominees. Although, that’s certainly still going to be a conversation surrounding this and every other Academy Awards. Instead this point is about how this year’s expanded Best Picture category and thoughtful nominations in other areas have led to a truly massive pool of films being recognized. On the one hand, it’s long overdue. People have lamented for decades that only a small handful of (white, American) films really get the spotlight at The Oscars. In past years, you could pretty much watch all the Best Picture contenders and know more or less who was going to win in every other category (because films in the BP category tended to also get nods in other major categories like writing, production and acting). But this year… Oh, boy, is that NOT the case! There are so many movies represented in the Acting categories alone that I don’t know how anyone found the time to watch enough of them to form their own opinions. Here’s where “the other hand” comes in. Despite so many of these films being streamable this year, many of them still aren’t. Many of these expanded nominee pools had limited runs in a small number of theaters across the country. Even if every single Oscar nominee could be found on a streaming platform, that doesn’t mean everyone outside the industry can afford a subscription to Netflix, Hulu, AppleTV and others – or have the free time to truly consume all this content. So, I find it really tone deaf on the part of The Academy to make this awards show even further out of reach for the average American moviegoer. They say they want more general viewership, but I’d be willing to bet that only a small handful of laypeople ever has the time or money to go see this many movies – let alone live near enough to a cinema that would carry these non-pop-culture films.
The long-story-short-version: I like the idea of recognizing more films in concept but not in practice. It essentially guarantees that the only people who can weigh in on The Oscars or tune into them with any real excitement or understanding are the people who have always been watching in the first place (the Hollywood Elite).
History In The Making
OK, this last note (before we dig into the predictions and snubs themselves), is all about summarizing what the potential history-making moments of the night could be. Again, these are things that would be firsts if they happen. You’ll notice later on that I actually am banking on all three of them happening, but this section is just to clue you in to why these are cool things that might shake out on Hollywood’s Biggest Night:
Will Smith gets his first Oscar: The man’s been nominated twice before, for his portrayal of Muhammad Ali in 2001’s Ali and again for his role in 2007’s The Pursuit of Happyness. He didn’t win either and wasn’t even really considered much of a contender. If he wins this year, it would be The Academy recognizing not just his great work in King Richard, but also the work he’s churned out in a very successful career.
Back-to-Back Women: If Jane Campion wins Best Director for The Power of the Dog, it would be the first time ever that the statuette went to women in back-to-back years (last year’s winner was Chloe Zhao for Nomadland). Depending on how you look at it, it can be seen as an even bigger accomplishment given that the amount of time for this to have happened isn’t very long. No woman had ever won that category until Kathryn Bigelow did it in 2010 for The Hurt Locker. Two ladies in a row would be a pretty cool “first” to witness, and it would signal that Hollywood is doing better at uplifting female auteurs. This is especially important given the fact that, once again, there is only one female director even nominated this year. On a related note, Ari Wegner became just the second woman ever to be nominated for Best Cinematography (also for Dog) and she is the first woman to ever be nominated in that category at the BAFTAs this year.
First Deaf Man: Troy Kotsur has already made history by being the first deaf man ever nominated for an acting Oscar. If you’re thinking a deaf person’s never won before, think again! His CODA co-star, Marlee Matlin, is the first and only deaf person to ever win an Oscar (for Children of a Lesser God in 1987, her first film role ever!). If Kotsur wins for Supporting Actor this year, he’d become the first deaf man to win one. It would be a nice full circle moment given the Oscars’ recent attention on the deaf community. This is now the second year in a row that a film featuring deaf actors has been nominated for Best Picture (last year’s was Sound of Metal), and another Best Picture nominee (Drive My Car) features an actress who communicates solely in Korean Sign Language.
“Don’t Look Up”
“Drive My Car”
“The Power of the Dog”
“West Side Story”
What Will Win: The Power of the Dog
Some people wonder whether The Power of the Dog will have sustained its early buzz as a frontrunner, especially given the late attention that’s focused on CODA, which won a coveted Producers Guild Award just a few days ago. However, I think Dog is pretty much a lock given that it’s got the most award nominations of any film this year, including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and three acting categories. It’s also a splendidly shot film that tackles a ton of difficult and complex themes.
What Should Win: Dune
OK, bit of a disclaimer here: I am a massive, unabashed fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune. It is my favorite novel of all time. It’s because of this that I know how truly impressive Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation is. It is somehow both intensely loyal to the source material while also feeling completely authentic. It perfectly encapsulates the feeling of the book (the first half of it, anyway) and I am incredibly stoked to see this franchise take off. OK, but why does my fanboy status mean it’s the best movie of the year? It doesn’t! Which is why I have to get that disclaimer out of the way. That said, Dune is the most purely cinematic experience that audiences have been treated to in a long time. Its set design, soundtrack, effects, cinematography and more are all stellar (pun intended). It’s also got an incredible cast that manages to do a lot with little screen time (don’t worry Zendaya fans, she will have a MUCH bigger role in Part 2). I can’t say I’m fully setting aside my superfan status when I say it, but I am coming from an honest place when I say that Dune was the best movie of 2021.
Honorable Mentions: King Richard , CODA
I am an absolute sucker for sports movies. The grueling training montages and scenes of embarrassment make the inspirational wins all the more satisfying. I have a similar love of movies where characters fall in love with an artform, which tend to share a lot of the same themes and plot devices as sports films. Maybe this is why I bawled my eyes out while watching both King Richard and CODA. Both movies really know how to hit you right in the feels, and they do so with powerful performances from all up and down their talented rosters.
Kenneth Branagh - “Belfast”
Ryusuke Hamaguchi - “Drive My Car”
Paul Thomas Anderson - “Licorice Pizza”
Jane Campion - “The Power of the Dog”
Steven Spielberg - “West Side Story”
Who Will Win: Jane Campion
The fact that her film is the top contender this year is no accident. Campion crafted a truly masterful tale of the American West that isn’t anything like those other westerns you’ve seen. It challenges the themes and pacing of macho action movies while not feeling like a total recrimination of the form.
Who Should Win: Paul Thomas Anderson
Read up on this production and you’ll probably agree that no one came up with more genius work-arounds to filming during a pandemic than Paul Thomas Anderson did. If these awards are supposed to celebrate achievements in filmmaking during a global pandemic, I think Anderson’s work is the cream of the crop.
Honorable Mention: Kenneth Branagh
A lot of people think Branagh should and could win this year. I’d be happy if he did. His semi-autobiographical film about growing up in the center of the Catholic-Protestant divide in Northern Ireland is incredibly touching for how violent and dangerous it is. It’s not easy to thread that line, and Belfast managed to do so while picking up a ton of early Oscar Season traction last fall. If there’s an upset for the Directing statuette, Branagh is the best candidate for it.
Javier Bardem - “Being the Ricardos”